"There is a point when you need to take your equipment and just use it. Don't pursue other techniques.  Take the equipment you have and go out there and use it.  Open your eyes and see."
Alfred Currier

A Painter Looks at Photography: An Interview with Alfred Currier

Interviewed by editor Brooks Jensen

Alfred Currier is a successful, nationally-known fine art painter.  He is also a long-time subscriber to LensWork and a student of the creative process in art.  He has written about the creative process in art-making.  I interviewed Al in 1998 and asked him to look at photography from outside the photographic medium.

Brooks Jensen:        First, tell us a little about your relationship to painting, how you got started, and a bit about your career so the readers of LensWork can know the context from which your ideas come.

Alfred Currier:      I've had an interest in art my whole life.  I was drawing as far back as I can remember.  I went on to art school after I graduated from high school, which was more years ago than I care to remember!  I went to Columbus College of Art & Design for a couple of years, I attended the American Academy of Art in Chicago where I got my degree in fine art.  After school, I started painting and doing other things until I was able to support myself full time, which took until 1985.

BJ:      The kind of painting you do is...?

AC:     My painting would consist of impasto - very thick, applied paint, layers of paint, very colorful, very textual.  I've been noted for my color, in particular.  I don't have a name, for example impressionist or abstraction or anything like that.

BJ:     Well, no one likes to be pigeon-holed!

AC:     Especially me!

BJ:     The reason I wanted to talk to you and publish it in LensWork is that I think sometimes as photographers we have a tendency to look at our craft from a particularly inbred perspective.  Those of us who are involved in photography mostly hang out with other photographers.  We talk shop, we talk equipment.  I thought it might be interesting to have someone who is involved in the creative path, involved in the artistic path, involved in the attempt to communicate creatively, to look at photography from the outside.  When you think about the path you see creative photographers are on, how does it differ from the path you see painters are on?  What are some of the lessons you think photographers might benefit from learning from the world of painting?

AC:     I think, in my opinion, the craft of painting probably isn't any different in some regards.  When painters get together they also talk about who's got the best price on linen, or the new brush from such-and-such a company or that sort of thing.  In that aspect, photographers and painters are very close as far as their thoughts about the intricacies of their individual crafts.  Now, the one thing I see photographers have more of as compared to painters, is that they have more gadgets available in the marketplace.  It seems that a lot of photographers tend toward collecting these gadgets.  Not that painters wouldn't do that, it's just that they don't have so many choices!

BJ:     If they did, would they be seduced by it?

AC:     Absolutely! I've got brush holders and all kinds of things that are fun diversions.

BJ:     But the application of the creative side of activity is considerably different, isn't it?

AC:     Absolutely.

BJ:     A photographer spends a great deal of time looking for something to photograph and once they do they simply need to execute the details of craft efficiently and effectively.  How does this differ from painters?

AC:     Well, we're talking about art.  As a painter, I'm more interested in the process of what I do more than the end product. Some painters are more interested in the end product than in the process.  One might be a fine art painter and the other a commercial painter.  The end products might look exactly the same from a viewer's standpoint.  But, only the artist within knows whether or not it was fine art or not.  It all has to do with process.  It seems that art is primarily for the artist.  The artist could be a photographer or a painter; it doesn't make any difference.

BJ:     It's so easy to put pejorative labels on people, particularly in the photographic world.  The fine art guys look down on the commercial guys as somehow being crass money-grubbers; the commercial guys look down on the fine art guys as being snooty academics.  It all does seem silly to me for the simple reason that it all gets down to the process, as you say.

AC:     The same thing could be said for the painting world.

BJ:     Tell me about the process you try to invoke in your artwork  When you feel the process work, how do you know it?  What does it feel like?

AC:     There is a certain point when you are involved in a painting when you lose all concept of time and space and you are totally involved in your work.  Then all of a sudden, it's done! It's my feeling that when I'm done with that process and I happen to get into that "zone", if you will, then I'm done with it.  I want it out of my sight.  I don't really care about it.  The rest- as far as people viewing it goes- is almost entertainment, rather than art.  The art is in the producing of it.

BJ:     So this might be compared to a photographer who hangs on to the negative and who produces the same print year after year.  If you had to do this as a painter, it would drive you crazy.

AC:     I have, in another way. I've reproduced some of my work in a process called giclee [pronounced zghee-clay'] which is a digital iris print that I paint on top of.  I have a tough time with it.  I have several images right now in my studio that are not completed and I have a difficult time getting myself excited about doing them.

BJ:     Because the path and the process is more interesting in original work?

AC:     And that process was there for the original but now it's over and gone.

BJ:     It's the search for "the zone" that is the core of your creative process.

AC:     That's right.

BJ:     So you've been out grocery shopping or whatever and then you come to the studio to work.  You've got to somehow get yourself transported into that zone?  Do you do anything specific to do this?  Do you have a ritual or habitual activity that you use?

AC:     I do.  Generally, I'll prepare for a session by putting out my paint and cleaning all my brushes and simply get ready to paint.  Then I'll sit in front of the painting and just look at the work.  Maybe I'll drink a cup of coffee and just look at it.  Sometimes I'll sit there with a magazine- usually LensWork...(chuckling).

BJ:     I'm sure!

AC:     ...and then I'll wait for the arrival of an "ah ha!" - a train of thought or a path that looks like it might be worth starting on.  Getting into that zone is not a guarantee.  It won't happen in all work nor all the time.  It's just something that I strive to achieve.

BJ:     It's not as though you can flip a switch and make it happen.  Instead you can prepare yourself to allow it to happen by quieting your mind and allowing that transition to take place.

AC:     Absolutely.

BJ:     If you were to advise a photographer as to how they might use the same ideas, how would you suggest they go about it?

AC:     Well, I'll go by an observation.  I traveled last year to Italy with a friend of mind who is a photographer.  We were on a little island called Burano.  I was painting and he was doing some photography and we'd meet occasionally as we wandered around this place individually.  There was this one particular time I noticed him working away.  He was doing something, but to me it wasn't very apparent he was doing anything other than setting up his camera.  I walked up to talk with him and he asked me to go away because he was in the middle of doing an image and didn't want to be disturbed while he was working.  I immediately left.  I wasn't insulted; he obviously was in that zone in that specific time.

BJ:     In a similar way, if you are involved in the studio and you're painting and you are in the zone and someone comes knocking at the door or the phone rings, does the bubble burst?

AC:     Yes.  It does.  But, sometimes I can recover, depending on how deep I am into it.  If I'm really in the zone, then I won't answer the door.  I'll turn the phone off.  I won't allow that to happen.

BJ:     You have to be a little bit selfish with your time and guard your time and your energies and guard them against intrusions.

AC:     If you are an artist, no matter what your medium is, you have to be selfish.

BJ:     It's one thing if you are in the studio, but if you are painting plein air and you're out in the field -say in the midst of the plaza in Italy- how do you accomplish this isolation there?

AC:     For me, I don't really consider that the same "fine art" as I do with my paintings done in the studio.  Painting outside is an acquired skill that involves an organization of your equipment, and a certain applied technique.  Generally, I can talk and paint outside just fine, but the plein air painting is simply a reaction to a subject - sort of emulating that subject.  In the studio, I'm drawing more from within and trying to create more.

BJ:     The studio painting is more a self exploration and the plein air painting in the field is more of an external exploration.

AC:     Yes.  I agree.  Often I'll just do quick sketches when I'm out in the world -sketches in oil paint, nonetheless- and then bring those inside to the studio and then think about using those as models for larger in-studio impasto paintings.  The sketch painting might be 9x6 inches. Back in the studio, I'll lay out a canvas that's 4x6 feet and begin by drawing the image on the canvas and blocking it in with paint.  Now, to me up to that point it's merely craftwork.  Then I start adding thick, applied color and there I start modulating color -pushing textures around - and that's when the creative part starts.  At least this is how it works for my work.  I can't speak for others.

BJ:     And this is the part where you begin to incur the risk and the painting has the possibility then, for the first time, of failing.

AC:     Right.  Exactly.  The earlier part is just skilled technique I've learned over the years.  I should emphasize that it's different for other people.  Some say you should only paint from life.  I just don't believe that.

BJ:     There comes a time where every artist -be they photographer or painter- has to step back and take a look at what they are doing, and pass judgment as to whether or not what they are doing is good or bad.  I've read some of your writing about this and you have some very definite ideas about what is "good" and "bad" art.

AC:     I think good and bad art is probably in the eyes of others.  I really don't believe there is any bad art.  I do have feelings about my exhibitions.  If someone were to walk down a wall and see a painting and then stop in front of one they really like, then that painting works.  If they stop in front of the next one and they really hate it, then that one works, too.  If they walk past it indifferently, hardly acknowledging that it was even there, that's the one that doesn't work.  If it creates an emotion -either negative or positive- then the artist probably won.

As an analogy, I can offer this thought: Think of yourself back in kindergarten or the first grade when you were painting.  You were painting for the process, not for the end product.  What happened with me was that I drew something that someone liked and I got praise for it.  So, the next time, I tried to make it better.  After several years, I sort of became the class artist.  But I started to paint and draw for the wrong reasons.  I was doing it for the approval of others.  Now I'm 55 years old and it wasn't until about 10 years ago that I realized I had accomplished certain skills and techniques.  I'd practiced and developed my skills so I could paint like I wanted to.  Once I had accomplished that, I didn't think there was anything for me after that.  I could paint like the artists I admired -say, like John Singer Sargent.  If you practice like this long enough, you might even be better!  But there will only ever be one John Singer Sargent.  What I tried to do from that point was to establish my own identity.  In thinking about that and trying to decide where my art was going, then I realized I needed to get back to that child within and start producing work for me and not for other people.  That's what I mean by doing art for the process of doing.  When that happened, and I started painting for me and getting more honest with my work, that's when my paintings started selling.

BJ:     From your perspective, then, a good or bad piece of art doesn't have anything to do with the art.  It has to do with whether or not its truthful to what's going on inside you as the art-maker.

AC:     I think so.

BJ:     And that's the only standard by which a person can judge the art...

AC:     So there's probably no room for critics. (Chuckles)

BJ:     I have a few quotes that you've written that might apply to photography and I'd like to have you comment upon and amplify them if you will.  You say, "When examining your own work, you must be aware of the difference between technique and the exploratory process."

AC:     Sometimes it molds together, in fact, just about all the time.  I'll probably start out in a frame of technique.  I'll apply paint using a skill I've acquired, and then there is some point when you are involved in that technique when it becomes exploratory.  That's what I'm looking for -that point.  I'm a figurative painter, but I don't think figuratively.  I lay out my painting with images that are recognizable subjects.  From that point on I get lost in the texture and the color.

BJ:     You have said, "When trying to explain art and the creative process there's a point at the end of the day when you're tired and about to go to sleep that you should be aware of."

AC:     Well, yes.  There are different ways you can achieve this.  We've all learned things in life.  Sometimes there are barriers.  There are walls around us that don't allow us to go beyond what we normally would do.  Generally, for me, I find at the end of the day I'll be engaged in something else-maybe the TV is on or I'm looking around at the painting on the wall-and suddenly I'll have some insight.  That's when the barriers have come down and something has come through.  Sometimes this happens just before I go to sleep.  I keep a notebook next to my bed.  I'll get a thought just as I am drifting off and I'll write them down.  If you don't have that notebook next to your bed, those thoughts will be lost.  The next morning when I start out fresh I can apply the ideas I've had from the notebook.

BJ:     Some people get the idea that creativity can happen on demand.  They are on vacation now or it's the weekend now and they are supposed to be creative because the opportunity is here, now.  They are supposed to be able to turn it on like a switch.  When it doesn't happen, they get upset and feel as though the muse has abandoned them.  But, I think you're right in that the muse doesn't pay attention to the clock or even the rhythms of our bodies.  The ideas crop up from who-knows-where, at the oddest moments.  Sometimes it's the most creative artists who simply recognize those gifts.

AC:     How many times have you been driving down the road, camera in your car, and you go by an inspiring image and you think, "Someday I'll have to go back and do that." Then you do go back and you find the light's not right, or the subject is gone.  You missed it!  You have to seize that opportunity at that time.

BJ:     Another quote is, "Each painting is the breeding ground for the next."

AC:     I often get on a run.  One painting snowballs some concepts that open the next.  Maybe it's not applicable to that particular painting; maybe I've just scratched the surface of an idea.  On the next painting I might push it a little more, and the next one a little more.

BJ:     I've often thought that the photographer who doesn't produce any work can't produce his hundredth piece of work, and that might be the brilliant one.  So the only way to get to the hundredth piece is to do the first ninety-nine, even though they might be just warm-ups for the real one!

AC:     Yes.

BJ:     You've also said, "The key to education and its effect on art is to know what boundaries have been established and then blast through them." Are you talking about educational boundaries, self-inflicted boundaries, or both?

AC:     Both!  There are some artists who feel that education is everything.  When they get done with their education, then they can begin being an artist.  My feeling is that with education there are walls that are put up in front of you.  You need to be able to go beyond that.  Some artists feel that education is bad and they won't listen to outside influences.  They waste a lot of time reinventing the wheel over and over again.  Really, we are all educated, just not all in the same way.  Whatever education you have, you need to know what your boundaries are and be able to go through it.  I know a large format photographer who feels that everything he puts in his final image must be in his viewfinder- period.  He prints only full frame.  To me, I think he has limited himself simply because he hasn't allowed himself to go beyond that.  He has put up boundaries that might be compromising his artwork.  We have to be able to open our minds.

BJ:     As a painter, if you were going to give advice to photographers, what would that be, looking at photography from the painter's perspective.

AC:     There is a point when you need to take your equipment and just use it.  Don't pursue other techniques.  Take the equipment you have and go out there and use it.  Open your eyes and see.

View Paintings  Questions and comments welcome to Alfred Currier at: alfredcurrier@yahoo.com

 Learn about LensWork at www.lenswork.com